Adventurer, businessman Fossett remembered by Washington U.

Friday, May 2, 2008

ST. LOUIS -- Friends, relatives and colleagues of the late Steve Fossett gathered at Washington University to pay homage to the alumnus and self-made businessman and adventurer.

Fossett, a longtime Washington University trustee and booster, was declared legally dead in February after disappearing during a solo airplane flight. He was 63.

An accomplished adventurer, Fossett held world records in five categories -- balloons, airships, sailboats, gliders and jet airplanes. But he was perhaps best known as the first person to fly around the world alone, nonstop, in a balloon. He succeeded in his sixth attempt, in 2002.

When he asked Washington University academics, staff and students to serve as mission control for his balloon attempts, the university's reputation soared with him, vice chancellor of public affairs Fredric Volkmann said at Thursday's service.

They did everything from plotting Fossett's travels to communicating in French with search vehicles when he plummeted into the Coral Sea off Australia during one unsuccessful flight. Students and media relations staff also handled media inquiries related to his adventures.

"He let students play a meaningful role in his quest," Volkmann said. "For a brief and glorious time, we were partners, together basking in the glow of Steve's extraordinary accomplishment."

Washington University also was the recipient of his endowed professorships, undergraduate fellowships and a 3-D celestial imaging lab.

Fossett, a native of Jackson, Tenn., was a 1968 MBA graduate of the university's Olin Business School and a member of Washington University's Board of Trustees since 1995.

John Wallace Jr., who served with Fossett as trustee, said his friend was "cool as a cucumber" and ever-resourceful. Midway through an Iditarod race, the lead dog on a sled team Fossett had rented refused to budge after a break, and the others followed suit.

Fossett got down on the ground, looked the beast in the eye and bit his ear hard enough that the dog yelped. Fossett and his dog team went on to complete the race, Wallace recalled.

Robert Virgil, former dean of the Olin School of Business, said Fossett tried his hand at many things to make money, from driving cabs to launching a successful series of securities trading businesses in Chicago.

"He was smart, mentally tough, had wide interests and a passion for life," Virgil said. "And he did it all in an unassuming way. ... I'll never forget him."

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